Art in the CBD

A new gallery in Beijing's business district exceeds expectations

No white cube exists in a vacuum, even if it strives to be one, and an art space’s location must be considered a functional part of its context. The newly opened KWM Art Center proudly advertises its location in Beijing’s Central Business District, touting itself as 'a rare art institution at the heart of the economic central area in Beijing.' While exhibiting art in commercial areas is not a new phenomenon Beijing, such displays typically take the form of corporate lobby installations or haphazard assemblages of paintings in ad hoc shopping mall 'gallery' shows; these tend to be tasteless and cheap. KWM Art Center is neither, even if it strikes an unshakeable contrast with its surroundings.

The new space, which opened in October of last year, is on the second floor of the east tower of the grandiosely named World Financial Center, which depending on the light and time of day tends to wear Rem Koolhaas' iconic CCTV building like a badge on its eastern face. Upon entering the WFC, one first notices the place’s smell, which is vaguely industrial — something between plastic and perfume — an odour particular to the shopping-business-recreational plazas that have sprung up in Beijing over the last decade. KWM Art Center is located near the ground floor escalator and adjacent to a narrow hallway where cooks and coat checkers from the neighbouring Michelin-rated Zhejiang restaurant sneak smoke breaks in the bathroom. It is a proper white cube, with 700 square metres of exhibition space, including 'a VIP room and an educational space.'


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The 'KWM' of KWM Art Center refers to King & Wood Mallesons, the sixth largest law firm in the world. Hence the location: the Art Center sits below KWM’s Beijing offices, which hold some 700 toiling attorneys. It is an outgrowth of the firm’s international commitment to the arts, the latest addition to a network that also includes KWM-affiliated galleries in London and Sydney.

The eventual idea is to be able to move exhibitions laterally across these spaces, according to Tim Crowley, KWM Art Center’s assistant director. This is a common strategy for global art institutions, such as Pace, which has footprints in New York, London, and Beijing, and Galerie Urs Meile, which has held a parallel exhibition program between Lucerne, Switzerland and Beijing since 1995.


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KWM Art Center’s initial focus, however, is local. Its founder is the Shanghai-based attorney Handel Lee, who is a senior partner at KWM, as well as a property developer with high-profile projects on the Shanghai Bund and in Beijing’s Legation Quarter. Lee founded KWM Art Center as an extension of his ongoing patronage of the arts, according to Crowley, and intends to use it as both an investment in and resource for local artists pushing against boundaries within the context of the Chinese art scene.

KWM Art Center’s current show, Beauty Without Beards, features canvases by the painter Li Xinjian alongside works by the photographer Ren Hang, who tragically passed away at the end of last month. Their next exhibition will be a retrospective of works on paper by the celebrated oil painter Ye Yongqing, and their program for later in 2017 includes as yet unconfirmed shows with young artist Ye Funa, known for her baroque miniatures executed in the format of fingernail murals, and Chen Tianzhuo, whose operatic Ishvara performance was a highlight of 2016.


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Returning to context: KWM Art Center doesn’t feel like a corporate lobby, nor a particularly flashy index of wealth, even if the building in which it is located does. It’s in the Central Business District, but is not quite a business itself. KWM Art Center doesn’t represent artists, and not all of its exhibits offer work for sale. One of KWM Art Center’s key clients is its own founding firm: some of the pieces it shows are purchased for a permanent collection by the KWM Art Fund, the same source of capital that bankrolls the space. Alongside its exhibition schedule, KWM Art Center is also preparing to launch a series of public-facing programs and art history educational courses, according to Emily Pei, its PR director. 'The regular public programs will be related to the exhibitions' themes, including artist talks, curator talks , performances, and other types of art events,' she says. The educational program will launch in early 2017, after a series of trial courses starting at the beginning of March.

While it’s off the beaten art trail, we commend KWM Art Center for its commitment to young, local artists on the rise, and recommend it for an alternative trip through Beijing’s whirring economic heart.


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